Rare Pangolins May Be Eaten to Extinction, Conservationists Warn

The scaly anteaters could be eaten out of existence if illegal hunting and poaching continue.

They've been described as walking artichokes and the most trafficked mammals in the world. Now, conservationists warn that pangolins, or scaly anteaters, could be eaten out of existence if illegal hunting and poaching continue.

In the latest update of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, all eight pangolin species were listed as "critically endangered," "endangered" or "vulnerable." Today (July 29), a group of scientists and conservationists tasked with studying pangolins for the IUCN issued an action plan outlining steps that should be taken to save the armored, insect-eating creatures.

"In the 21st century, we really should not be eating species to extinction - there is simply no excuse for allowing this illegal trade to continue," Jonathan Baillie, co-chair of the pangolin specialist group for the IUCN's Species Survival Commission and conservation programs director at the Zoological Society of London, said in a statement. [See Photos of Pangolins at Risk]

Pangolins, native to Asia and Africa, are the world's only mammals with true scales made of keratin. Despite international trade bans, pangolin meat and scales still fetch high prices on the black market. Demand is especially high in China and Vietnam, where pangolin parts are used in medicine and served as a culinary delicacy.

Last August, more than six tons of live pangolins were seized as they headed from Indonesia to Vietnam in a shipping container labeled as frozen fish, fins and fish bones, AFP reported at the time. In April 2013, a Chinese fishing vessel was found carrying as many as 2,000 of the toothless creatures, after the vessel ran aground in the protected Tubbataha Reefs off the coast of the Philippines, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Though the scope of the black market is difficult to quantify, conservationists estimate that more than 1 million pangolins have been taken from the wild in just the last decade. The four species in Asia are the most severely threatened. The Chinese pangolin and the Sunda pangolin are now considered critically endangered, while the Indian pangolin and Philippine pangolin are now listed as endangered. But as the populations of Asian pangolin species are becoming more scarce, traders are increasingly looking to Africa to meet the demand for pangolin.

Dan Challender, co-chair of the pangolin specialist group, has witnessed that demand firsthand. In 2012, just a few days after he arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Challender said he watched a man in a restaurant drop the equivalent of about $700 U.S. to have a 4.4-pound (2 kilograms) live pangolin killed and served to him. As pangolin meat is often the most expensive item on a menu in Vietnam, businessmen and women might order it to celebrate the signing of a contract or deal, or to impart status, Challender said. While recent studies have indicated that delicacies like shark fin soup are losing their status, Challender suspects conservationists have a long way to go in changing public opinion about consuming pangolins.

"Pangolins are a group of species that are arguably forgotten in the conservation movement," Challender told Live Science. "They're nowhere near as visible as other animals like tigers and rhinos."

The steps outlined in the action plan involve protecting pangolin strongholds in Asia and Africa, and developing a price index to track the demand of pangolin meat and scales on the market. The pangolin specialist group also recommends that scientists conduct more studies to better understand the creatures' range, movement and distribution in the wild. The group has also called for programs to help local communities move away from poaching and ensure that they have alternatives to poaching pangolins to make a living; for some people, finding a pangolin in a remote part of Southeast Asia is still "a bit like a finding a winning lottery ticket," Challender said.

Original article on Live Science.

Gallery: First Red List of Endangered Ecosystems Image Gallery: Evolution's Most Extreme Mammals 6 Extinct Animals That Could Be Brought Back to Life Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

More and more of southern Africa's Cape pangolins are showing up on the black market. The species' population is projected to decline by 30 to 40 percent over a 27-year period, according to the IUCN.

There’s no silver bullet solution to protecting endangered species. We can't stand guard over every single one of them, as this man is doing to protect black rhinos in Zimbabwe. But technology can be helpful in staying ahead of wildlife poachers who have been winning the war for too long, according to Crawford Allan, a senior director based at the World Wildlife Fund for a large international wildlife trade monitoring program called TRAFFIC. Here’s a look at their arsenal.

One of the first technologies rolled out consistently to monitor wildlife, camera traps were catching poachers in the act. They’ve since evolved into tinier, almost impossible to detect digital devices. Some have live video feeds, automatic triggers, remote access, heat sensing, vibration detection and are smart enough to triangulate shotgun sounds so park rangers know exactly where to go.

Wildlife conservationists need to know where the animals are in order to protect them. Radio-frequency identification tags are an important tool, WWF’s Crawford Allan said. RFID chips implanted in rhinoceros horns connect to ground or mobile sensors so when one falls off the grid, a team can work on tracking it down and check the animal's welfare. The tags work for other species, as well. Here, two Canada Lynx kittens are tagged by rangers from the US Fish and WIldlife Services.

Getting a visual on poachers before they strike is tall order. Masts with static night vision cameras are used to keep an eye out, but the image angle and range are limited, according to Allan. Light aircraft are expensive, require a pilot, need runways and could be shot down. For these reasons, unmanned aerial vehicles are emerging as a potential solution. Cost is still an issue but poachers can’t hide easily from UAVs with thermal detection patrolling the skies.

Mesh networks are digital communications systems originally developed for the military, Allan explained. With help from a $5 million Google grant, WWF is installing a mesh network to relay sensor and device data. Rangers on the ground can also use the network to communicate without poachers being able to listen in.

Satellite technology has transformed basic tracking collars. Accelerometers inside can indicate whether the animal is well, sick or has died given its motion and the satellite connection means the animals are easier to locate. The collars can be used on a wide range of animals, from birds on up to elephants. Allan said the price has been prohibitive for developing countries, so he hopes it will come down.

The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, known as SMART, is a free open-source software created by a community of conservation organizations. Available in local languages, the software is designed to make wildlife conservation activities and wildlife law enforcement patrols more effective. Tracking animals, patrols and vehicles means an influx of data, and SMART can crunch it all to show stakeholders the big picture.

In India, the illegal metal snares used to catch tigers were being cleverly camouflaged. To fight back, the TRAFFIC wildlife trade monitoring network trained forest guards to use robust, easy-to-assemble Deep Search Metal Detectors. “Word kind of got around that there was some sort of magic technology out there that was going to find every poacher in the forest instantly,” Allan said.

In South Africa, the Rhino DNA Index System or RhODIS project has unique DNA profiles for individual rhinos. If one is killed for its horn, the database aids in prosecuting poachers. Wildlife forensics has such a high degree of resolution now that DNA testing can actually show which country in Africa confiscated ivory came from, Allan said. Here, a tiger cub is donating a blood sample for DNA sequencing.